Butler is a coach's dream at WVU
NEW YORK -- By the time West Virginia got around to cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," had given way to Frank Sinatra's familiar New York City anthem.
With Ol' Blue Eyes crooning over the loudspeaker, Da'Sean Butler finally climbed the ladder, the last Mountaineer to do so.
He waved to the crowd, pulled out the blue-handled scissors and started snipping at the net just as Sinatra sang, "And find I'm king of the hill, a number one."
Karmic timing or perfect choreography? Either way, the sentiment couldn't have been more sublimely appropriate.
In a Big East basketball season in which everyone debated whether Scottie Reynolds or Wes Johnson should be named player of the year, Butler left with the only bling that really mattered: the conference tournament championship, most valuable player award and a piece of nylon jewelry draped around his neck.
In three eye-popping games, Butler went from back-burnered Big East player to star attraction, knocking down two game-winners and averaging 19.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in a domination not seen in New York City since King Kong claimed the Empire State Building as his own.
The Mountaineers, the No. 2 seed in the East, enter the NCAA tournament on a six-game roll with arguably the hottest player in the country leading them to a first-round date with Morgan State in Buffalo.
"He's been absolutely wonderful," Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said of Butler. "There hasn't been a day when he's asked, 'Why are we doing this?' He's never complained. He just comes in and works every single day."
It's an attitude that can't be measured by recruiting experts, talent evaluators or even college head coaches. And it's failing to account for that attitude that makes guys paid millions feel like worthless schlubs when they miss so badly on a player.
Butler grew up in New Jersey, starring at Bloomfield Tech, the best of the bunch among the state's smaller schools. He was an all-state selection and a 1,000-point scorer but was never recruited by any of the schools in his backyard.
Not Rutgers, not Seton Hall, not St. John's. But if Fred Hill, Bobby Gonzalez and Norm Roberts are looking for solace, there are plenty of shoulders to lean on.
Only four schools gave Butler a peek coming out of Bloomfield Tech: DePaul, Saint Joseph's, Richmond and West Virginia. And "system" guy John Beilein had coached WVU at the time.
"No one recruited him," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
Butler was productive enough in his one season under Beilein to raise some eyebrows, but it was under Huggins that he really blossomed. Freed from Beilein's more rigid offense, he followed in the path of Joe Alexander. His numbers exploded and his talent turned heads after Huggins got a hold of him.
But unlike Alexander, who at times chafed at Huggins' abrasive style, Butler doesn't blink when Huggins barks.
"He's a blue-collar, lunch pail, hard hat kind of kid," assistant coach Billy Hahn said. "He never complains. Ever. He's a coach's dream."
After three years of coaching, though, Butler decided it was time to put his success or failure into his own hands.
At the end of his junior season, Butler revamped his diet and dedicated himself to the weight room. A kid who admits he'd eat eight times a day without basketball exchanged the junk food for healthy choices and climbed the StairMaster for an hour each day.
In between, he attacked his abs and legs, practically torturing himself with physical exertion.
"We're talking about a kid who couldn't bench-press 200 pounds; now he's over 300 pounds," Huggins said. "The difference with Da' is night and day. He's shed his body fat almost entirely."
The difference isn't just on the scale. By this time last season, Butler was worn out. After averaging 33 minutes per game and leading the Mountaineers in scoring all season, his numbers dipped by season's end. Averaging 18.3 points in February, his scoring average tailed to 17.1 by WVU's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Dayton.
This season, Butler has gone from scoring 15.9 points in late January to 17.4 in March while spending even more time on the court (36 minutes per game).
In the Big East tournament, Butler averaged 38 minutes, this after logging 43 minutes on the court during the Mountaineers' overtime win over Villanova in the regular-season finale.
"[When] I look around I see guys who feel like I did last year; they have no legs," Butler said. "I don't feel that way at all. The difference is tremendous. I know I can carry this team if they need me to."
Let's just say they've needed him to.
Butler has had six of them.
He scored on a driving layup with 1.2 seconds left to beat Cleveland State, hit a long jumper with 2.3 left to upend Marquette, threw down the dagger on Louisville with 16 seconds remaining and Villanova with five left.
Then came the Big East tournament: three games, two heroic moments. Against Cincinnati, Butler's banked-in buzzer-beating 3-pointer staved off the Bearcats' upset bid and allowed WVU to become the only top seed to survive a murderous Thursday.
"When you bank one in from the top, sometimes at the park they don't even count it; they make you call it," Cronin quipped.
After a more mundane run against Notre Dame -- 24 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists, nearly half his team's points against the slowdown Irish -- Butler did it again in the title game.
With the eyes of Madison Square Garden glued on him -- who else would be taking the shot? -- Butler still managed to muscle his way into the lane, bobble the ball, regain his composure and launch a winning floater through the twine against Georgetown.
When Chris Wright's matching heroics came up just short, West Virginia had its first conference tourney crown since 1984 and Butler his place in the state's collective heart.
"He's been like that the whole year," sophomore Devin Ebanks said. "Any shot we need, he makes it."
Now Butler's teammates are hoping to repay their leader by gathering a few more trinkets for him. The Mountaineers have made no secret about their wishes. They're dreaming big, big as in a national championship.
They believe the NCAA tournament selection committee snubbed them out of a No. 1 seed, but the 'Eers have grown accustomed to being underappreciated.
"That's the character of this team," Butler said. "We're used to overcoming things."
West Virginia has given basketball its emblem, but the sport has never reciprocated. The Mountaineers have never won a national championship in basketball and have made just one Final Four appearance, way back in 1959.
Is this the year Butler helps WVU rewrite its history?
Everyone knows how Sinatra's song ends:
"If I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere."
Maybe even in Indianapolis.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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